Cheerful polling-geekery

Are all those discouragingly close poll results under-sampling Latinos and younger voters and under-estimating Obama’s black and Latino majorities?

If, like me, you find it almost intolerably depressing that Slinky should have any chance at all of becoming President, here are two essays that will help cheer you up:

Matt Barreto argues that national polls tend to under-sample and mis-question Latino voters (accounting, for example, for Harry Reid’s surprise victory in 2010). Polls done specifically of Hispanics, with appropriate techniques, consistently show show huge margins (>2:1) for Obama, while his reported leads among Latinos in the broader surveys tend to be much smaller. Adding to that structurally similar, though less pronounced, errors in predicting the black vote, Barreto finds a Romney bias of 5-6 points in current polling, suggesting that Obama’s actual margin this year could be comparable to his margin in 2008. (Cue wingnut heads exploding.)

On the age front, with a strong Republican age-gradient, Nick Gourveitch argues that, for various reasons, polls may be under-sampling younger voters (or improperly treating them as not “likely voters”). He doesn’t provide any numerical estimate, but this seems likely to be another source of noticeable Romney bias.

A ground game can’t rescue a candidate who simply doesn’t have the votes. But virtually all the surveys put Obama ahead among registered voters. And what is by all accounts an even stronger ground game than four years ago ought to allow him to translate some of that advantage into votes: not just on election day, but in early voting.

The contrast between the optimism of Republicans and the pessimism of Democrats is astounding, and not helpful to the good cause. This doesn’t argue for complacency, but for the confidence that generates the last dose of extra effort. “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Cheerful polling-geekery”

  1. Can’t remember where I read it (and just a few days ago, at that), but some cold water was thrown on the “superior Obama ground game” theory. The article described how Romney has outsourced his GOTV to Ralph Reed’s outfit, among others — they don’t have as many field offices and volunteers but they they lots (and lots) of money, enthusiasm, and experience.

      1. You do realize just how much Reed skims from any contract? His track record indicates he is pocketing huge fees to recontact the same base voters. And outsourcing means most of the money is going to “administration and infrastructure” to again contact the same base. Bang for buck would be expected to be small compared to the Democrats and unions [with years of experience working together].

        1. One can skim and still get the job done; overpaying for service doesn’t mean you haven’t been served. The Republicans have valuable experience in getting out the church-going vote (it served them well in 2004).

  2. That Obama could meet or exceed his 2008 showing is remarkably implausible. In 2008 the Republican Party was demoralized, having been sundered over the evaluation of George W. Bush’s legacy in general and his late 2008 response to the financial crisis in particular. And the Republican nominee was relatively weak with registered Republican voters, who gave him a majority of their votes to be sure but nowhere near the overwhelming majority that nominees typically earn from their own party’s registered voters. And the Democrats were remarkably enthusiastic – united overwhelmingly by the possibility of removing the deeply hated Bush and his party from power and by the opportunity to vote for a charismatic standard bearer who just so happened to be the first black major party nominee for President. Said nominee had the new candidate’s luxury of being able to run entirely on promise with no governing record to defend. The Democrats further benefited from levels of voter participation among the young and among minorities that had never been seen before. And Obama won a very wide majority of self-classified independents.

    This time the polling data suggests that Republican enthusiasm and commitment to the Republican nominee is exceptionally strong. While the data suggests that Democrats are somewhat enthusiastic, they are nowhere near as enthusiastic as they were in 2008. Turnout among the young will almost certainly be much lower than in 2008 (and besides that, the polling data suggests Obama’s lead has shrunk with this group) and turnout among minorities is likely to be somewhat lower. Obama faces the headwind of running as an incumbent at the tail end of 4 years of economic malaise. His favorables/unfavorables are not healthy and the national “right-track”/”wrong-track” data is not favorable for an incumbent. The polling data shows Romney with a huge advantage among self-described independents.

    And of course data on early voting suggests a significant trend shift in Republicans’ favor. Some states report the number of returned absentee and early votes by party ID (you don’t know who the voter voted for, but you know that they voted and that they are a registered Democrat or Republican). In general, in most places Republican votes are up significantly vs. the same point in 2008 and Democratic votes are down significantly vs. the same point in 2008. Other states simply report the total number of absentee and early votes by county. But here again in most states those counties that McCain won in 2008 are reporting significant increases in early voting vs. 2008 while those counties that Obama won are reporting flat or declining early votes vs. 2008.

    Add to this the fact that those tracking polls with larger sample sizes have tended to be the ones that show the largest leads for Romney and that Obama is a 2-4 points below 50% in the vast majority of polls (not a great spot for an incumbent – the old conventional wisdom about late decided breaking for the challenger 4:1 is probably significantly over-stated but Kerry cleaned up among the late deciders in 2004) and you get a picture that is bleak for Obama. Further, those polls that have a stronger showing for Obama tend to have a “likely voter” model that automatically “passes” someone who tells the pollster that they have already voted. But if you look at the internals on these polls, that group is over 20% of the total respondent set, even though that’s almost impossible given the number of early votes already cast (low to mid teens as a % of registered voters at most). In other words, people are lying.

    Now all this could change. Perhaps Gloria Allred could find someone else’s divorce records to unseal (if at first you don’t succeed…). Perhaps Middle America will suddenly become exceptionally fond of tumblr memes about binders. And perhaps Obama has made a step-change improvement in the efficiency of his ground operation that will only become apparent on election day.

    But this thispost sure feels like desperate grasping.

    1. “This time the polling data suggests that Republican enthusiasm and commitment to the Republican nominee is exceptionally strong.”
      Are you sure you don’t mean hatred of the Democratic nominee?

    2. And of course data on early voting suggests a significant trend shift in Republicans’ favor.

      Oh, really? What’s your source for that?

      There’s been coverage of early voting on left-leaning blogs, in which it’s alleged that (for example) Democratic leaning areas in Ohio are showing much heavier early voting than GOP-leaning areas.

      This site ( seems to have pretty comprehensive data on early voting. They have comparable percentages of 2012 and 2008 figures with party ID for the following states:

      Florida, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

      The net difference (Obama minus Romney/McCain) shows Obama with an advantage in Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina, while Romney has the advantage in Florida, Maryland, and Oklahoma.

      Who’s doing better in the critical state of Ohio depends on whom you listen to.
      Claims that Obama is ahead in early voting:
      I don’t see any non-party-affiliated sites claiming that Romney is leading in Ohio’s early voting, but here’s a claim from the Romney campaign:

      If you have links to other sources that suggest that there is a widespread advantage for Romney in early voting, I would like to read that. Because it doesn’t match what I’ve read elsewhere.

      1. The net difference (Obama minus Romney/McCain) shows Obama with an advantage in Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina, while Romney has the advantage in Florida, Maryland, and Oklahoma.

        To clarify, when I say that Obama or Romney has an advantage in this metric, I mean that they have improved their turnout more than the other candidate has improved their turnout. So, for example, when I refer to Romney having the advantage in early voting in Maryland, I do not mean that Romney is ahead (he isn’t), just that he’s less far behind Obama than McCain was in 2008.

        Sorry if that is unclear.

    3. sd, the Gourevitch link, using Census data, suggests that the share of the youth vote is not in fact especially volatile as between Presidential years. And demographic shifts make this year’s potential electorate about 2 points more Democratic than the potential 2008 electorate.

      The IEM vote-share market shows Obama with about a 6-point spread.

    4. So sd what’s your prediction?
      You calling this one for Romney?

      I’ve already called it for Obama weeks ago.
      It’s a little late to step up to the plate and put your ability to intuit the future on the line now…
      But why not? What have you lose? Your credibility?

    5. I live in a predominantly black neighborhood. There usually isn’t much of a line on election day at my polling place, but in ’08 the lines were very long all day long. I was in line about an hour and a half. My neighbors were giddy with enthusiasm as we chatted while waiting in line. I also noticed more young people in the crowd than usual. They’ve added polling places this time around in anticipation of another strong turn-out, but the vibe on the street here doesn’t have the same enthusiastic feel of ’08. For one thing, despite the huge black turn-out in Kansas City and St. Louis, the state went to McCain in ’08. For another, Obama’s “new candidate smell” has worn off, along with the novelty of the first half-black president. It will be interesting to see how things play out this time, but my gut predicts a lower black turn-out. Not that it matters in this state, which is pretty solidly red[-neck] on Presidential elections and will no doubt go to Rmoney this year.

      I think SD has a point on the “hate vote”, too. In ’08 most everyone who wasn’t a solid R (and quite a few who were) were furious with Bush’s “leadership” and desired to send a strong message with their vote. Today the hate vote swings the other way, with most R’s absolutely apoplectic over, and quite a few D’s disappointed with, Obama’s first term. But I may be surprised, as I was in ’04, with the re-election of an unpopular President by a highly polarized constituency.

      Whatever. Like the song says: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. No matter how much we get on our knees and pray, in our hearts we know we’ll get fooled again and again.

  3. I’d like to suggest another source of polling problems: Conscious refusal to take part in polls by (usually younger) citizens. My elderly almost-wingnut parents provide a good example: They don’t have caller ID, and answer the phone no matter who is calling. Contrast that with an on-line-aware youngun’ who doesn’t answer calls on his/her phone (cellphone especially) that don’t come from a recognized number… or, for that matter, views a “phone” as something you keep around for highway emergencies and ordering Chinese delivery and communicates in person, by text, or on Twitter/Facebook/etc.

  4. And maybe this has changed since 2008, but my understanding of the polling in that election is that the polls did not capture people with no landlines – in other words, young people.

    1. I’m pretty sure this has changed since 2008. But I’m not sure anyone manages to adjust for C.E.’s concern, especially for any difference in the type of young person who answers a cell phone versus the type who doesn’t.

      Personally, I’m pessimistic about Obama’s chances. And I think the campaign largely has itself to blame. Romney is such a flawed candidate, and most of the rest of the current Republican party is sooooooo far from the median voter — but Axelrod, Priorities USA, etc. have not played their winnable hand (not winning hand, but winnable) very well.

      The Barreto article makes me more confident about Nevada, but I’d already had that as a very likely Obama win. Can the error be large enough to win Florida? Maybe, but I personally doubt it. (I hope I’m wrong.) Same with Virginia. What about Colorado? Maybe, but if Ohio, Fl, and VA go Republican, then CO only matters if Obama sweeps NH, Wisc, and Iowa. Is that possible? Yes. Is it likely (in a world in which Ohio went Republican)? No.

      Which means that, as we keep saying, it all comes down to Obama holding Ohio. (Actually, Ohio+Wisc or Ohio+Iowa+NH, but if he gets Ohio, my guess, based on prior elections, is that he’ll do better in Wisc than Ohio — not much better, but still a bit better.)

      I’ll admit, though, that Barreto makes me think that Ohio+? is not the only route. The most likely route? Yes. But maybe FL will come through for us. Or maaaaaaaaybe VA will.

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